Jonas Malheiro Savimbi founded and led the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), the second largest political party in Angola. UNITA fought alongside the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) during the Angolan War for Independence against Portugal. Later, UNITA fought against MPLA in the country’s civil war, a prominent Cold War proxy war in which Savimbi enjoyed support from conservative U.S. leaders. Savimbi was killed in 2002 after over a dozen assassination attempts.


"Before I could complete the press guidance, I received a call from the office of Secretary of State James Baker saying that I should issue a press statement expressing disapproval of any accord that did not call for a free and fair election in Angola. Savimbi’s representative in Washington had called Baker. Savimbi signed the agreement for power sharing with the  Angolan regime––how could he not sign with eighteen heads of state urging him to do so? ––but he did not like the agreement and wanted the United States to denounce it. The fact that he could instruct his lobbyist to contact Secretary Baker on a Sunday afternoon and dictate US policy reflected his remarkable influence on a large segment of the American body politic.” (Page 146)

“The election took place in September 1992. By mutual agreement, the United Nations was the official arbiter as to the election’s fairness and legitimacy. UNITA had its people at every polling place, and they signed off on every vote count. When the final official results came in, Dos Santos had 49 percent and Savimbi 34 percent. The agreement called for a runoff in the event none of the candidates obtained a majority. I was in Rome witnessing the signing of the Mozambique peace agreement, to which we had made a major contribution, when the news came in that Savimbi was not accepting the election. His basic message was, ‘If I did not win, it must be a fraud.’"

“I got on the phone from Rome demanding to speak to Savimbi, but he would not take my call. I spoke to his senior lieutenants recommending that they allow the UN to make an investigation of voting irregularities, as stipulated in the peace agreement, before making rash statements. I made a press statement saying the same things. When the press asked Savimbi’s spokesman if they were going to follow Secretary Cohen’s advice, the response was ‘Secretary Cohen can go to hell.’” (Page 151)

“My relationship with Savimbi and UNITA soon reached an unfriendly finale. Savimbi’s lieutenants made a formal request that the United States officially denounce the election as fraudulent and demand a rerun. They were used to the United States agreeing to their every request for support since 1986. I told them that I could not do that, because the agreement they signed in Lisbon stipulated that the United Nations and not the United States or any other government would determine the fairness and legitimacy of the election. They argued that the United States could override the UN. I told them flatly that we would not denounce the election as a fraud merely because the wrong person won. At that point, our relationship was over.” (Page 151)

“The lesson for us as mediators was to examine closely the motivations of governments and insurgents who sign peace agreements. There are times when peaceful transitions can enable protagonists to rest and prepare for a rent to hostilities. Signatures on peace agreements are not always sincere.” (Page 152)

Savimbi’s Background

  • Savimbi was born on 3 August 1934, in Munhango, Moxico Province.
  • At the age of 24 he received a scholarship to study in Portugal, where he met other students interested in the anti-colonial movement.
  • In the early 1960s, he sought a leadership position in the MPLA Youth, but was rejected. He then joined FNLA, and in 1964 conceived the idea for UNITA.
  • Following Angola’s independence from Portugal in 1975, Savimbi drew attention from policymakers in China and the U.S.
  • Savimbi enjoyed support from the US from 1975 until 2002 in the Angolan civil war, a Cold War proxy.
  • In 1992, Savimbi and Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos faced off in a national election. Neither were able to obtain the required 50% of the vote, which initiated a run-off election. Savimbi withdrew his name, alleging electoral fraud. UNITA signed a new peace accord in 1994, which included an offer of the vice presidency to Savimbi. Savimbi declined and continued fighting. 
  • Savimbi was killed in 2002, after surviving many assassination attempts and being reported dead at least 15 times.